Artists speak: Advice for scientists when communicating science

The descending roar of a bus as it accelerates away from a stop. A spider clings to its web on a streetlamp nearby. Students divulge the complexities of life in comestible stories. Silence doesn’t really exist, but if you listen closely, you can trick your mind to perceive it underneath the tiers of sounds of various decibels enveloping the air that surrounds you.

Simple components make up our banal existence, but to a scientist, or an artist, or a storyteller, these overlooked details edify life. The Creative Communications of Science Panel, hosted by Initiative for Maximizing Student Development, consisted of four innovative harbingers of modern scientific explorations: Todd Gilens is an artist that studied landscape architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of designs; Shane A. Myrbeck is an acoustician, sound artist and composer; Lauren Sommer is a science reporter for KQED radio staff; and Gail Wight is an assistant professor in the Art and Art History department at Stanford University. Together, these panelists shared how they each uniquely integrate science into art and recommended how scientists can use art, in its uncountable forms, to communicate science.

Shane Myrbeck started off the panel discussing psychoacoustics, which describes how humans perceive sound. As an example, Shane covered his work at the Urban Prototyping Festival. He set up multi-channel loud speakers on a chain link fence, an undoubted symbol of urban life. Collecting sound information as a part of a data sonification project, we can learn more about language demographics of different neighborhoods, wind, busses and traffic. The TenderVoice and TenderNoise projects collect sound information from the Tenderloin of San Francisco and show how sounds at various decibels can affect us.


Todd followed with how we can visually inform the public of scientific phenomena. One of his projects harnessed the presence of busses in San Francisco to ameliorate our understanding of local endangered species. By picking an organism from each taxon, Todd conveys the breadth of the problem with the Endangerbus Project. A bus is a gathering place for a community sharing, if only temporarily, the common goal of getting somewhere. Public transit works towards conserving open space by minimizing traffic. Where the bus stops are will influence where people settle, and animals are ultimately displaced by human settlement. These native species are “living at the fringes.” Publicly appealing education on such topics is important when considering political measures that work towards conservation.

Lauren Sommer

Lauren Sommer then shared how she tackles a new science story when she is making long form features (about six minutes) or short form (about 30 seconds to 1 minute)for public radio. The first question she asks is, “How do we interest people?” Good stories stem from the broader impacts more than the results or data. She enlivens the story by addressing how people can relate to the problem. She then conveys it in a story that is simple and clear, so people will remember when they tell their friends about it later. “It’s the little things that bring the story to life, not the major findings,” Lauren discovered, as she embraces the challenge of conveying complicated issues.

Gail Wight shared her works grasping some of the most difficult concepts in biology. In her 2008 work Ground Plane, Gail clarifies deep time. Carefully ransacking Stanford’s ancient bone collection and photographing each one, Gail constructed a snowflake pattern to denote the ephemeral thought of deep time. Yet another concept perplexing scientists and philosophers alike is how we think about ourselves as “electrochemical” beings. Spikewas the name of the mouse in an eight-foot long plexiglas maze on display in 1999. Within the maze are fifty vignettes with a model and small description of major advances in electrochemical research, all of which Spike could chew, bite, and move around, as though it were payback.

Bones demonstrate deep time.

During the question and answer session, each creative science communicator shared take-home advice for the scientists. One way to confront the dilemma of communicating science deprived of the technical details is by admitting that they will bore or overwhelm 99% of the population, but they serve as the building blocks of major discoveries about our existence. “Like the Higgs Boson,” Shane added. Gail talked about working with an MIT researcher who harnessed the skills of method acting to get into another mindset: “Forget it all to make it accessible.” Lauren advised that we at least explain major concepts of our research to people we run into. “Truth is a process,” Todd added, and everyone on the panel emphasized the importance of fact checking in order to respect specialists across the fields.

We strive to bring minor details to the attention of all those who will listen, whether it is how to conceptualize deep time, experience how noise inundates the Tenderloin in San Francisco, or how a certain enzyme breaks down another and impacts the synthesis of something else (my research, in a nutshell). Art is a cultural process enabling us to perceive and critique these details in a new light, spawning new ideas and new directions in research. Take a moment to share your research with inquisitive strangers, and give an artistic twist that will leave a lasting impression.

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